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Becoming a Stalwart Leader Amid Upheaval

As your cup of coffee steams on the table, you eye the front page of the newspaper and are immediately bombarded by conflicting headlines.

Stock markets are up, but the Gross Domestic Product contracted by 10% last month. And while the government is working on stimulus packages,  the unemployment rate remains high. As the pandemic rages, schools are closed, hospitals are full, the economy is uncertain, and you’re trying to make sense of it all.

Even the world’s leading economists can’t say what the future holds. So what are you supposed to tell your team? That the economy is fine, conditions will improve? Or it’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare for a downturn? There’s no easy answer.

Yet  your company is going to look to you for direction, if not answers. And you’ll  help your team come hell or high water. Excellent packaging leaders adapt to emerging challenges, and while they may not have all the solutions, they can effectively lead and communicate no matter the circumstances.

Easier said than done. While effective management is often enough during normal times, organizations need leaders to step forward.

Uncertainty Demands Leadership, Not Management

Effective management does not a leader make. A manager can use checklists, processes, and more to ensure projects are on track. And good management is often enough for “business as usual.” Yet the COVID-19 pandemic has forced decision makers to toss out their plans, and managers must now rise to become leaders.

What’s the difference? On his insightful blog, leadership coach Dave Stachowiak recalls a flight rerouted due to a blizzard, forcing the pilot to quickly shift from managing the flight, to leading it. Stachowiak points out:

“Management is following all the checklists and getting the plane safely to the destination, as planned. Leadership is determining what to do and where to go in an uncertain situation.”

Mattson Newell, from Partners in Leadership, sheds more light on the differences between a manager and leader. When it comes to managing, Newell argues:

“Effective management is a means to an end: it requires optimizing processes within an organization to generate favorable business outcomes. For the most part, doing so depends on leveraging proven skills and adhering to established policies to get the job done– in other words, working within the status quo to increase operational efficiencies and thereby generate better results.”

Unfortunately, “status quo” has been thrown out the window and effective management is no longer enough. Besides making tough choices and reacting to changing circumstances, leaders must unite people and strengthen relationships. As Newell puts it:

“Creating sustained alignment among employees is a hallmark of effective leadership — in fact, the fundamental difference between management and leadership is that leadership is necessarily human-centric. While managers build systems and processes, leaders build relationships.”

Right now, teams need leaders, not managers, who can act as guiding voices and who can respond to fast changing circumstances. This may mean setting aside plans, ignoring KPIs, and otherwise improvising. Writing for McKinsey, Andrea Alexander, Aaron De Smet, and Leigh Weiss put it this way:

“Leaders with the right temperament and character are necessary during times of uncertainty. They stay curious and flexible but can still make the tough calls, even if that makes them unpopular. They gather differing perspectives and then make the decisions, with the best interests of the organization (not their careers) in mind, without needing a full consensus.”

Okay, you understand leadership is important, but how do you identify leaders on your team? Alexander,  De Smet, and Weiss suggest looking for three traits:

  • Lived through a crisis (personal or professional) and shown their mettle and personal resilience.
  • Made a tough, unpopular decision because it was the right thing to do, despite the fact that they took heat for it and potentially burned bridges or spent social capital.
  • Willingly given bad news up the chain of command to leaders who didn’t want to hear it.

You may not find employees who currently check all the boxes, but many leaders are emerging and adapting to the crises besetting the packaging industry. And the last trait, effective communication, is something every organization can leverage to cope with the times.

Honest and Timely Communication Lights the Way

Leadership during times of uncertainty isn’t “just” about strategic decisions and navigating markets. Uncertainty is emotionally draining and stressful for leaders, employees, and external partners alike. Yet clear and effective communication can settle nerves.

A great leader can be a beacon of light,  guiding team members with reliable, clear, and honest communication. And given the state of the world today, constant communication is a must. As journalist and leadership guru Rebecca Knight states:

“As the coronavirus pandemic escalates and disruptions to business-as-usual continue, managers are grappling with the unknown. You don’t know when your employees will be able to return to the office or how different things will be when they do. Regardless, you need to be in constant communication with your team.”

Right now, many of your employees are worried about the future. Could your company be hit by layoffs? Will benefits or hours be cut? Building trust and rapport is important, and that means being open and honest with your team.

You may not always bear good news, and you may not have all the answers. That’s okay, communications extraordinaire Jennifer Benz puts it this way:

“You’re allowed to tell employees what you don’t know along with what you do know. Do acknowledge issues that you know are top-of-mind for employees (like layoffs or salary increases), but don’t delay communicating until you know every last detail—that’s how rumors get started and why employees start feeling like decisions are being made without them.”

Honesty and open communication will tamp down on rumors. By opening up communication, you can take charge of the message. And you can use the moment to drive home your company’s core values. Communication Studies and Organizational Science professor Cliff Scott suggests:

“Employees pay more attention to the messages they receive from supervisors and leaders in times of crisis. They’re also more likely to remember them. In this moment of crisis, there is an opportunity to remind them of core organizational values and communicate supportiveness as we all work through the current situation.”

It’s hard to find silver linings in a hurricane of uncertainty. We don’t know what’s on the horizon. Perhaps more storms, or maybe a welcomed reprieve. Either way, with steady leadership and effective communication, you can help your team and organization navigate what lies ahead.


What does this have to do with the packaging industry? Everything! The global economy and the packaging industry are experiencing upheaval. But sound leadership and effective communication will help teams cope with uncertainty.

Chase & Associates 
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